First, Do No Harm

Practically everyone I know has read The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and as a result feels deep sympathy for Afghans trapped under the Taliban. That widespread feeling allowed President Obama to portray Afghanistan as “the good war” during his election campaign, I suspect. The Taliban is a vicious and ignorant movement. But it does not follow that we are doing good because we fight them.

As I have pondered our war in Afghanistan, I have thought often of Imperial Reckoning, a book I read earlier this year. It chronicles the British government’s fight against Mau Mau in Kenya during the 1950s.  I have read other troubling books about colonialism, such as King Leopold’s Ghost, which tells of the Belgian Congo and its exploitation. I had thought British colonizers were more enlightened. That turns out not to be true.

The Mau Mau were violent terrorists, who murdered and intimidated anyone who failed to fully support them in their campaign to drive out the British. The British government thought to create a well-ordered apartheid in Kenya, much like South Africa, where whites and blacks lived in unequal peace. Determined to fight for their vision of law and order, the government made a great deal of Mau Mau brutality and savagery—of which there was certainly much to be made.

The fight did not go easily. The government found itself enmeshed in a battle not just with a few revolutionaries, but with the entire Kikuyu population. Many thousands died in concentration camps (about which British authorities apparently destroyed the evidence.) Ultimately the government locked up or detained the entire Kikuyu population, tortured anyone accused of Mau Mau sympathies, and allowed vigilantes to murder at will. In a way they made themselves the mirror image of the Mau Mau. The government prevailed, but only by turning over Kenya to Jomo Kenyatta and leaving the country. Imperial Reckoning suggests that Kenyatta and his political heirs (who still rule the country) have followed in the British tracks.

Historical parallels are slippery. I am not suggesting that America in Afghanistan is anything like Britain in Kenya. The two are vastly different. What I do suggest, though, is that you can focus so much on the awfulness of your opponent, whether the Mau Mau or the Taliban, that you fail to see what you are doing yourself.

The question we have to ask ourselves is not whether the Taliban is bad for Afghanistan, but whether we have the means to offer Afghanis something better. If we fight for ten more years and kill a hundred thousand more young men, will it end well? Will Afghanistan be better off? Will we? Those are very difficult questions, but we have to answer them in the next few weeks.

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